Work on Jake Hutchings’ physique, allow him time to develop, and Hearts will have themselves a top player.
That is the message from Torquay United manager Chris Hargreaves, who reluctantly released the teenager earlier this month.
Hutchings promptly flew north to Edinburgh and signed a contract until the end of the season with Hearts, hopeful of earning a longer-term deal this summer.
Hargreaves is eager for the player to seize his opportunity. The killing fields of the English Conference are no place for a cultured 19-year-old to hone his skills. Although 6ft tall, Hutchings found his slender frame dwarfed by hulking centre-forwards and struggled to cope amid the brute strength of Conference football. Grounds like The Hive in Barnet, The Crabble in Dover and Aldershot’s Recreation Ground are unforgiving venues when you’re a teen still learning your way in the game.
Joining Hearts as an under-20 player removes some of the pressure. Hutchings gets time to develop naturally at Riccarton whilst working to build himself up, and in a couple of years Hearts could reap the benefits. That is the plan, and Hargreaves will be watching intently to see how it progresses. Finances forced him to free Hutchings at Torquay and, speaking to the Evening News, he implored the teenager to grasp his chance in Scotland.
“Regrettably, we had to let Jakey go because he wasn’t playing and we had to cut the budget, albeit he wasn’t on a great deal of money. He’s just a little bit too lightweight at the minute,” explained Hargreaves.
“The Conference is a physical league. Over the last five or six seasons, the teams that have gone up from the Conference have been very physical. Jakey would definitely struggle week in and week out at this level. If he does get stronger and does develop he will be a good player. At the moment, for us, he wasn’t ready.
“We try to play the ball out from the back and that suits him because he’s that type of player. However, you come up against these big beasts down here and most of the teams are very direct, apart from Gateshead and maybe Grimsby.
“Jake found it quite difficult in some instances with us and when he went on loan [to Grays Athletic, Weymouth and Frome Town]. Because we don’t have an under-21 squad, the club wanted to release a few players who weren’t going to figure and he was one of them. He’s got a good family, his dad’s a solid bloke and is very supportive and wants the best for him, as any dad does.
“Jake is very ambitious and wants to do well and this is a fantastic opportunity. He can count himself really lucky to be in that situation at Hearts. He’s got to make the most of it now. As I say, if he can get a little bit stronger, he’s got a chance.”
Hargreaves describes Hutchings as a technical player whose expression was perhaps stifled in the Conference. Hearts will seek to nurture that side of his game away from the spotlight and encourage him to flourish in under-20 fixtures.
“Jakey is a really nice lad off the field. On the field, he’s a cultured player and a good defender,” continued Hargreaves.
“He’s quite calm in possession, he can receive the ball and play because he’s not a ‘head it and kick it’ merchant. That’s what I like about him. He’s probably two years off what I need just now but it’s that physical side he needs to improve as quickly as possible now for Hearts.”
Reports down south have hinted at interest from bigger English clubs, however Hargreaves stressed he wouldn’t have released Hutchings for nothing if he thought a fee could be forthcoming any time soon. “I’m not in the habit of letting players go if I think they’re being tracked my numerous Premier League clubs. Jakey wasn’t one of them. I’ve never had one phonecall about him,” he said. “Still, I didn’t want to let him go because I want to promote youth at this football club. We didn’t feel Jake was ready to go into the first team and if players are ready, we can’t afford the luxury of nurturing them for an extra two years until they’re 21 or 22.”
Hearts do have that luxury despite their own financial turmoil in the very recent past. The Edinburgh club were determined to preserve their youth academy throughout administration and are now committed to enhancing it under a more stable structure. Director of football Craig Levein, academy manager Roger Arnott and under-20 coach Jack Ross are working to create the best possible environment for the young players. Hutchings hopes to benefit.
“That’s the idea, 100 per cent. I hope it does help him and I’m happy to let him have that opportunity,” said Hargreaves. “I said to the board that I wanted to give young players like Jake the chance to get sorted out with a club now rather than be left in the summer with about 700 other released players. Jake has a chance now at a big club and will be given time to develop. He just needs to get as strong as he can.”
Hearts’ intention is to mould Hutchings into a holding midfielder if he can’t make it as a centre-back and Hargreaves admitted he has the right attributes for that transition. “Possibly, yeah. Sat in front of the back four as a screener, or playing as a deep-lying midfielder, definitely. He’s good in possession. If Hearts can nurture that, then great. We just haven’t got the finances or the time to nurture players so it’s great he’s at a club which can give him that. He needs to take his opportunity now.”